The Ruby Slippers

Epilogue:

Kansas



By Gem

&

PJ



Angel slowly crossed the library; his eyes fixed on Buffy, the real Buffy. He spared a brief moment to pay respect to the broken shell that had once sheltered her, and then focused his attention on the true essence of his love as she appeared before him.

She looked so impossibly young and carefree to him; as young as the first time he had seen her. The shadows he had seen gradually overtake her hazel eyes, so many of them shadows he had put there himself, were gone now. She was almost glowing as she moved gracefully away from the cluster of loved ones surrounding her body. He drank in the sight, the sense of her, and felt the last vestige of his mortal pain slip away in the light of her presence.

"I've missed you so much," he whispered as he held out his arms to her.

Buffy stepped into his embrace, returning it with a passion that matched his own. They clung fiercely to each other as she burrowed her head into his chest, rubbing her cheek against his shirt to brush away her tears.

"Missed you more. God, I have been so lonely without you." Her voice wavered, sliding the scales from utter relief at finally being with him again, to bitter regret in remembrance of the long nights spent apart.

"No more," he promised her swiftly. "You won't be out of my sight long enough to miss me ever again."

"Have I ever been?" She tilted her head back and smiled at him. "I always kind of believed you were still out there, even if I couldn't feel you or see you."

"That's me, Stealthy Stalker Guy."

He ran his hand over her shining hair, marveling at the warmth and silken texture he could once again truly feel. Whatever form of energy they were now considered, her death had restored their reality and solidity to each other. He would have been blissfully content just to spend eternity in her presence, but it appeared there was more the Powers had to offer them.

"You look so surprised," she said, gently laughing at him as she blinked away the last of her tears. "Didn't you know I was coming?"

"Not when. Not so soon." Involuntarily his eyes drifted back to the Buffy that was; the one surrounded by grieving friends in the ruins of a burnt- out building.

"It seemed like forever to me." She too glanced back at the impromptu wake, but her attention was caught by her friends, not the mortal framework she had left behind. "I'm sorry for them, and for my poor mom, but not for me, Angel. I did what I was supposed to do, and I'm glad...but I'm also glad it's over."

Angel placed his fingertips beneath her ear and ran it down the curve of her cheek, gently turning her head back to face him while he made his confession.

"Buffy, I...I heard you when you called for me, but they wouldn't let me come. I wanted to be with you...but they said you needed to say goodbye on your own." He let his hand fall away from her face as he waited for her response; he could only hope she would believe how much it had hurt him to leave her alone at the end.

"As much as I hate to give the PTBs credit for being right about anything, I think they were this time," Buffy admitted. "I needed to make my peace with leaving my friends and my family behind, especially Dawn." She raised her hand to caress his cheek. "That wasn't something you could do for me, even if it hurt to do it by myself."

"I just wish...you should have had more time, sweetheart." He closed his eyes to block out the images of all that she had been denied. He had forsaken the life they could have lived together to provide her with time that was then snatched away in an instant. "You missed out on so much."

She stubbornly shook her head. "No. The only things I missed were things I wanted to share with you; I don't care about the rest. All I see of my future is you; remember? So if I can spend the rest of time just sitting next to you," she reached down and clasped his hand in hers, bringing it up to press against her heart, "holding your hand, I will be a very happy Slayer-that-was."

When he opened his eyes he could see the truth shining from deep within her. Whatever regrets she might have had in life, they were gone now. All that remained was joy: both hers and his own reflecting back at him from her eyes.

"Just holding hands?" he teased, gently brushing the thumb of his captive hand back and forth across her breastbone.

"Well..." a faint blush stained her cheeks, "maybe a little more than that would be nice."

"Then you are going to be over the moon with all the things I have planned for you." He leaned down and brushed the tip of his nose against hers, grinning so widely he felt sure his mortal skin would have split.

She caught her breath at his smile and reached up to trace it with reverent fingers. "Could you do that a few billion more times, please," she asked softly. "Because I think that's how many it's going to take before I get tired of seeing that smile."

He caught her fingers in his hand and brushed them against his cheek, turning his head to kiss the tips. "You're going to have to put up with it a lot more than that, I'm afraid. Now that you're here, it's never going away."

"Speaking of here," Buffy glanced anxiously back over her shoulder at her old life, "can we not be? Here, that is. It's kind of creepy watching my own body.and I feel so bad for my friends because I can't help them with this." Her forehead wrinkled thoughtfully as she reached deeper within herself. "Actually it's more like I want to feel so bad...but the best I can do is kind of bad, and that's really bad, isn't it?" She returned her eyes to Angel, suddenly puzzled.

"You're not supposed to feel real sadness here, or pain," he explained. "When we were apart I could feel them, because it was like the other half of me was missing. But usually it's almost...well, it's almost like feeling echoes of those emotions." He smiled wistfully at her. "I wish I could make them go away entirely for you, but the idea is that you can't really appreciate the good unless you remember at least part of the bad."

"Then we were almost appreciated to death." There was a slight edge to her tone as she continued. "Actually, I think we were, when you get right down to it."

"But not anymore," he reminded her, his fingers now tracing the pattern of her lips in turn. "It's all ancient history now, like something out of a book or a movie. The darkness can't hurt us anymore, not the real us."

He couldn't stop touching her; his soul, too long bereft, searched for reassurance in the line of her throat, the curve of her back. He couldn't believe she was in his arms at last.

"I wish I could keep it from hurting them," she said, her thoughts shifting to once more encompass those left behind. "As much as I bitched about the hours, and the lack of pay, and the lack of, well, I got used to being Defender of the Universe."

"I know. Believe me, I know how hard it is to step back and just let things happen." He shook his head. "But sooner or later, no matter how much you love them, you have to let people face up to the darkness themselves and find out what they're made of. These are good people, Buffy, and I know they're strong enough to fight it." Angel's hand slid down her back to join the other clasped around her waist, holding tightly to that which had been so long denied him. "You and I, on the other hand, have already faced our last battles."

"And I guess we've earned a little peace," she admitted, "especially those of us who've been doing the 'high-guilt, low self-esteem' diet plan for the past century or so."

He smiled ruefully as her gentle reproof hit home. "Someday we'll all be together again, but until then I think we need to trust them to take care of each other, so we can concentrate on each other. It's been too long..." he cocked his head to the side and paused to reflect. "No, make that 'never' since we could think only of each other. We need this time."

Buffy could see the echoes he had mentioned flitting through his dark eyes, and felt them travel though her soul as well. Grief, loneliness, despair, need, all had been endured on both sides before fate had brought them to this moment. But in this moment, and for all future moments, they were together; and in the end all that mattered...was the end.

"No arguments here, honey...other than about 'here' being here. So where can we go to start this all-by-ourselves time?"

Her quick smile was a combination of childlike mischievousness and adult desire that her lover found intoxicating, and utterly irresistible. He wanted to be Superman for her, to fulfill every expectation he had ever seen shine from her eyes. He wanted to give her the world, and then have the joy of watching her grace it with her presence.

But more than anything, he just wanted to be hers, and she his. All the old definitions of duty and self, the ones that had separated them for so long, had at last fallen away. All that was left was two lovers, on the edge of forever.

"Where do you want to go? Take your pick; we can go anywhere we can imagine." Angel gestured at illusory splendors. "Anywhere you've wanted to go, but thought you never could. Any world you can create in your mind. We can even find a nice black hole to hide in for the next few hundred years, just you and me and no distractions." He brushed a gentle kiss across her forehead, smiling when she shivered at his touch. "We can do whatever we want," he drawled softly in her ear.

Buffy turned her head to nuzzle his neck, reaching up to trace the hairs that grew down to his collar. "Whatever we want?" she murmured huskily. "That sounds pretty radical to me, lover, but I think I could get used to it."

He laughed softly; her fingers were tickling his neck almost as much as the teasing caress of her lips. "So what will it be? A café in Paris, a gondola in Venice, a beach in Tahiti..."

"Mmm, I don't care," she sighed as she moved her attentions to the hollow of his throat. "You've been doing this longer; you pick for the first hundred years or so. Then it will be my turn." With one final, lingering kiss, she tucked her head into his shoulder and waited for her first new world. Suddenly, his words came back to her in full and she anxiously looked up at him. "No black holes, though. You've been in the shadows too long."

"We both have."

With a sigh of contentment, she closed her eyes and laid her cheek upon his chest again, wrapping her arms firmly around him. She could let go of friends and family; she knew they would take care of each other, and she trusted Angel's word that she would see them again someday. She could let go of her responsibilities, and trust some larger plan to keep the world in motion without her help. She could, and would, let go of the darkness that had haunted them for so long.

But letting go of Angel was a 'never again' proposition.

For a moment everything was still, and then she felt a brief sensation of dizziness as the world fell away at her feet. Suddenly a warm breeze caressed her cheek, almost as tenderly as Angel's fingertips combing through her hair. Not quite sure what to expect, she lifted her head and opened her eyes to take a look around.

They were standing on a tiny beach ringed by a rocky coastline. The sand felt warm beneath her now bare feet and she could smell sea salt in the air. In the distance, the sun was slowly rising over impossibly green hills, casting a rosy glow on the white-tipped waves before them.

"Angel, this is beautiful," she breathed. "Where are we?"

A moment later she lost all consciousness of her surroundings when she saw Angel in the half-light of dawn. The misty sunlight was shining on his face for the first time she could remember seeing, and she was almost undone by the spectacle.

"Galway Bay," he answered with a modest pride. "This is where I grew up, or pretty close to it."

He too was drinking in the marvel of daylight creeping across beloved features, but he forced himself to focus, needing her to understand his choice.

"When I was a child, I used to sneak down to this cove at dawn, every day I could get away. I'd watch the sun slip over the hills like it was being lured into the waves, and I'd think about all the far away places it had been before it came here. And I'd wonder about the people I would meet in those places someday, when I finally left home." Angel smiled down at her and caught a strand of blonde hair with the tips of his fingers as it blew across her cheek. "I never dared to imagine you, though."

She blushed slightly, basking in the light of his tender smile. "I guess I would have been hard to see anyway. I was facing the wrong ocean."

"Plus, there's that whole wrong century part," he acknowledged with a mock sigh. He tore his eyes away from her face long enough to glance around the quiet beach. "You know, I haven't been back to Ireland since the 1700s, and I don't even know if this place exists anymore, but I wanted to show it to you the way I remember it. The city itself didn't touch me, but this place...this is where I felt I belonged; it was home. I guess that's why I associated it with being with you."

"Home," she echoed. "No place like it, is there?" She stood on her toes, sliding her hand around the back of his neck to pull his head down for a kiss. "In fact, on the subject of you and home, I have kind of a funny story to..." their lips met.

"...tell you later," her inner voice continued, tapering off to a blissful sigh.

As hearts met hearts' desire, Angel felt an emotion so foreign he almost couldn't call it by name. In two and a half centuries he had experienced many things, but only once before had he known a moment of such pure and perfect...happiness. This was the place his soul had so long sought, never truly believing it attainable for one such as him. But finally the journey was at an end; the unworthy sinner was forgiven, and the unlikely hero rewarded.

Here, at long last, was paradise.

He wasn't aware of speaking the thought aloud, or perhaps he no longer needed to. However Buffy heard his musings, they seemed to be a source of quiet amusement for her. She broke their kiss for just an instant, only long enough to utter a phrase he found as puzzling as the laughter in her voice.

"Not paradise, Angel; but Kansas welcomes you."

* * * * *

The End